THE WORLD’S TEN GREATEST SOCIAL IMPACT ACCELERATORS

The Unikorn 10 is an Annual Ranking of the World’s Ten Greatest Accelerators (and Incubators) Churning out Impact 


Well, it’s that time of year again. Thousands of companies around the world are launching their next cohorts and summer sessions.  With every passing year, more and more programs are re-thinking design, curriculum, frameworks and tools to help their entrepreneurs and startups tap into the fast-growing impact space, which today accounts for $1 out of every $5 transacted globally and is worth more than US$8 Trillion worldwide.  So what makes a super amazing accelerator or incubator program compared to one that is just, “eh?” Some criteria we considered with this year’s Unikorn ranking include international diversity of cohorts, depth of impact curriculum, number of participants, quality and mix of mentors and instructors, total investment versus equity taken, alumni track record in impact, and founder/leadership tenure, amongst others.

Unikorn’s annual ranking of the world’s top ten social impact accelerators and incubators is released every July. If you don’t see your favorite organization or any of the usual suspects on our ranking… stop, and take a deep breath. It will be ok. You can lobby us to put them on the list next year, just email us at talk@unikorn.org and if it’s worth any consolation to you, we gave shoutouts to some of our other faves at the end for the honorable mention list.

So here we go, ready?

1. Hult Prize Global Accelerator

Little surprise here, as the Hult Prize Foundation continues to lead in the impact accelerator category worldwide. Founded in 2009 by leading social entrepreneur Ahmad Ashkar, this organization has a ten-year head start on nearly everyone else in the impact startup space with a workforce of more than 25,000 students spread out across 2,000 or so universities in more than 100 countries and an official global partnership with the United Nations. Home to the world’s largest accelerator program, hosted in the castle where Harry Potter was filmed, the program welcomes early-stage startups from every corner of the world. Top investments exceed US$1,000,000 and annual participation topped 250,000 in 2019 with an alumni community north of two million people. Notable alumni include Aspire Food Group, BuuPass, and  IMPCT Coffee. Last year,  Fast Company named these guys “One of the World’s Most Innovative Companies”, and they are often referred to as the Nobel Prize for students.

2. Y Combinator

Arguably, one of the most famous incubators in the world is Y Combinator. Their seed funding program has more unicorns than any other, and the recent addition of free online content for entrepreneurs puts them near the top of our list. One of the most impressive things that Y Combinator offers is its extensive alumni of startups such as Airbnb, Dropbox, and Twitch as well as its celebrity speakers like Mark Zuckerberg, who regularly engage with the startup community. Recently, more and more impact-centered companies have been recruited to participate, like Catch (catch.co),  and we’re excited to see what kind of difference these companies will make in the coming years. As a result, expect Y Combinator to be back in conversations for our top spot in next year’s impact accelerator ranking. 

3. TechStars

TechStars is one of the OGs in the world of accelerators. Their programs are amongst the best in the world, often being hailed as the Harvard or Yale of the incubator space. They do more than just accelerators. As pioneers of, “Startup Weekend” their offerings go beyond the traditional showup, eat some food, meet some successful people action. They have a series of programs spanning 15 countries with a big focus on passion driven startups. One of the things that makes them special is their incredible mentors, who dedicate in most cases a minimum of 12 weeks to program participants. This self-fulfilling prophecy ensures that with every amazing graduate of the program, there are an infinite amount of new applications for the following cycle (usually four per year). This uber competitiveness churns out high-impact enterprises with assembly line proficiency and our ranking’s most aggressive acceptance rate of less than 1%. With over 1600 launched companies in the market and at least a quarter of them focused on impact, TechStars gets the #3 nod on our list. 

4. 500 Startups

500 Startups remains a young but promising incubator, admitting its first class of startups into their pilot California incubator in 2011. While primarily focused on early-stage venture and seed funding, their aim is to discover (self-proclaimed), “the world’s most talented entrepreneurs” with as much a focus on ecosystems, as on enterprise. This makes 500 Startups one of the hottest companies on our list because they have the ability to ignite the impact space ecosystem with a vengeance.  A leader in founder diversity in both nationality and gender, these guys get the crown for the most rogue and robust of the batch. If you are looking for a program that welcomes hipsters and uniqueness this summer, this might just be the right fit for you.

5. WAYRA

Wayra is probably one of the largest accelerator companies in the world that you haven’t heard of. Originally launched in 2011 out of Colombia, this mega global hub has a brick and mortar presence in 10 countries around the world. Backed by Telefonica, one of Latin America’s and Europe’s largest telecommunications companies, Wayra is easily the largest impact accelerator in LatAm. Here at Unikorn, we are often skeptical of corporate backed programs who are looking to spin impact as another flavor or business. However, this is not the case with Wayra. While indeed they are backed by a multi-billion dollar organization, they have managed to show the universe what authentic corporate ‘social impact’ should look like within larger enterprise. Wayra has gone well beyond CSR and is a fundamental impact maker, specifically within the job creation and youth unemployment sectors and as a result has gracefully gained its place in our list.

6. CHANGELABS

A newcomer to our list is Changelabs, ranked amongst the world’s best for the very first time in 2019. This accelerator program is unique in both it’s methodology as well as it’s access to international markets along with it’s exclusive focus on impact. While Changelabs is a relative newcomer in the space, it is currently focused on one of the fastest growing and under-served markets in the world, the Middle East. It has assembled a seasoned team with decades of experience and a mentor community that includes founders and investors of leading companies and accelerators. It’s no surprise that they are providing some of the largest funding available in the region at LE 2,000,000 given they are backed by an A-list of international partners that would make any founding team jealous including Amazon, the Dutch Development Bank, the European Union, and Blom Bank. Its first cohort in Egypt offers an impact solution to job creation and youth unemployment in one of the largest Arab populations in the world at around 100 million people. We couldn’t think of a more suitable member of our Unikorn 10 to represent the Middle East. 

7. Conscious Venture Labs

As you venture into the Conscious Venture Labs pillars, you will find they stick true to their name as they want their accelerator to teach companies and leaders, “to embrace capitalism as a powerful catalyst for good in society.” Too good to be true? Not if you ask Jeff Cherry, longtime Baltimore, MD based investor/hedge fund manager and one of the founders of the lab. Jeff knows a thing or two about stakeholder value, having coined the term, “Conscious Capitalism®” to the previous firm Concinnity Advisors, a hedge fund focused on identifying and investing in companies which build value by having impact. 

This US based program is 4 months long, backed by Under Armour and the City of Baltimore and is going onto their fifth cohort of entrepreneurs. We are excited to see where the lab and it’s 3C’s of Consciousness, Customers and Capital go over then next few years. 

8. Halcyon

Strategically located in the development capital of the world, this Washington, DC based incubator is positioning itself to have sustainable global impact across all corners of the world. The Halycon House offers impact and social entrepreneurs an epicenter in the heart of DC where they live, work, learn and of course play, in the internationally renowned Georgetown area. From their intensive summer programs that can last as little as 7-days to 14-days, all the way to the more sought after 5-month fellowship program that includes free housing, all of Halcyon’s activities are centered around community, art, and activism. Another reason to be excited about this DC based company is the recent expansion of their event series, which leverages their massive and influential network of policymakers while displaying their vibrant community of events. This includes their flagship program, ‘By The People’ which is a city wide festival that some say could easily become America’s Capitol City equivalent to the internationally acclaimed SXSW festival which happens in Austin, TX each year. 

9. BongoHive 

For our second to final place in the ranking, we move to the African continent and game changer BongoHive. Born in Zambia, this company was one of Africa’s first innovation and technology hubs focused on young people with a mission of changing the world. Based in Lusaka, the group of founders built their first accelerator to address the learning gaps they experienced in university and at their first jobs. Convinced that there had to be a better way to design programming to enhance soft skills and impact attributes along with idea cultivation and the deployment of capital, they launched BongoHive. Today,  BongoHive has evolved into a multi-tiered human capital acceleration company, cultivating and training the continent’s future innovators through a number of programs including bootcamps, pre-accelerators, accelerators, a learning academy, and shared work-space. They have an incredible team of locals who believe not only in their home base of Zambia but in the future of their entire continent. Paired with their commitment to training the next generation on social impact makes this pick for our top 10 one of the easiest. 

10. Gaza Sky Geeks

Words like accelerator, startup, and incubator are likely not the first which come to mind when you think about Gaza in Palestine. A war-torn region in the Middle East, whose borders are currently militarily occupied by a foreign country – Israel, means that entrepreneurs here have no access to airports, seaports, e-commerce (like Ali Baba, Ebay, Amazon etc..) or any legal trade routes (illegal underground tunnels don’t count) and no real means of access to the outside world. This makes life for any aspiring entrepreneur nearly impossible. So how is it that an accelerator can exist here? Well, that is exactly why Gaza Sky Geeks cracked this year’s Top 10, taking down our last spot albeit not having regularly running electricity or water. 

Founded in 2011, described as, “The World’s Toughest Entrepreneurs” and dedicated to providing economic equalizing opportunities, this accelerator is rapidly solving a local youth unemployment challenge that is amongst the worst in the world. Annual programs include everything from full-stack code development bootcamps to on-campus university tech trainings and a feature-packed coworking space.  Recent additions include an agency that virtually deploys alumni into digital and tech positions all over the world. Backed by international organizations like Mercy Corps, Google, and Techstars (#3 on our ranking) the world of impact could not be happier with the continued growth and success of this game-changing accelerator. 

Editor’s Note: 

We promised you some honorable mentions and they are listed below. Stay tuned for our upcoming regional rankings along with our UNIKORN 100© which will feature the top 100 impact entrepreneurs and executives of 2019. Questions or comments? Feel free to email us at talk@unikorn.org

UNIKORN 10© HONORABLE MENTIONS

(We didn’t forget you guys, it’s just a top 10 list only has enough room for ten spots… you still rock!) 

ASHOKA 

+ACUMEN 

BAOBAB

CO-CREATION HUB

FLAT 6 LABS

MASS CHALLENGE

SOPACT

UNREASONABLE

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